A year or so ago, I read Mary Gordon’s memoir The Shadow Man. I felt an immediate kinship with Mary because her book is about searching for her father’s past.
Before I’d read Gordon’s book, Bernard Cooper’s memoir about his father exploded what I had been told about memoir structure, showing me it is possible to deviate from chronology, to use flashbacks, and to merge the past with the present. Gordon’s story struck me as similar to my own because we share a similar problem: that our story is really about the process we went through to learn about the pasts of our families. When I finished The Shadow Man, I realized that now I had another memoir to add to Cooper’s memoir and Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club to serve as models for me.
Mary Gordon actually spends a fair amount of time detailing her research in the library and in contacting strangers. The reader gets to participate in the research process. This is like following Nancy Drew’s progress in solving a mystery–albeit without the imprisonment in the cistern, tarantula/black widow spider, etc.
While Gordon’s book focuses on the actual research process, my research will be more of a framework with more stories from the past and present. However, this book was eye-opening to me because writing teachers say you have to put everything into action and that doing research, reading letters, etc. are not active enough–that these moments of small epiphanies have to be put into scene. It’s not always possible to put into scene because if the scene didn’t occur the writer can’t make it up as it’s not fiction!
The twist in Gordon’s book is that Mary Gordon was raised Catholic by her parents, although her father was born Jewish. But he had become a (IMO dangerous) anti-Semite and this made Gordon’s search for his past–and really the man himself as he had died while she was so young–a very complicated emotional ordeal.
Let me say that Mary Gordon’s book is gorgeously written. Maybe this heavy reliance on process wouldn’t work in the hands of a lesser writer, but it really works here. Will you enjoy the book? I’m not sure. It depends on the type of books you like. I think someone like me who is curious about family history, 20th century history, family relations, and beautiful, almost lyrical, writing will love it.
Maybe you’ve read one or more of Mary Gordon’s other books? Check out her website.